Five decades ago, R. J. Rushdoony’s book on American education, The Messianic Character of American Education, was jointly published by the tiny publishing house, Presbyterian and Reformed, and the newly created Craig Press. It remains the most academically rigorous critique of the philosophy of progressive education ever written. Its title tells all.
This book was a follow-up on his 1961 book, Intellectual Schizophrenia. In that book, he set forth the Christian case against the concept of neutral education. He also set forth the case against tax-funded education.
Rushdoony received an M. A. degree in education from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1940. He had assembled by 1963 what most people would regard as an immense personal library, and heavily represented in it was the field of education. He had access to superior libraries, including Stanford University. This is why he was able to reference so many obscure publications that had not seen the light of day in decades. They may have not seen the light of day for a century.
In The Messianic Character of American Education, Rushdoony presented the primary theme of the book on page 2:
But if skills are only a necessary but subordinate part of freedom, then in themselves they cannot constitute a liberal education, however necessary to it. The question again remains basically a religious question, and, to its credit, progressivism has been essentially a religious movement, as indeed has been the whole of the movement from Horace Mann to the present, to liberate man by means of a universal system of state-supported schools.
Rushdoony went through the primary source documents relating to the two dozen founders of American progressive education. Most of the documents which he cited had been long out-of-print. They had been long forgotten. Most of the founders of progressive education had been forgotten by 1963. Only a handful of specialists in the history of the education were ever aware of most of these individuals. So, the book represented not simply educational revisionism, but a much-needed introduction to the educational philosophies undergirding the system of tax funded education in the United States.
There had never been another book like this. There was no comparable introduction to these two dozen figures in one volume. There was no place for any researcher to go to gain access to their names, a summary of their philosophies, footnotes to what they actually wrote, and an assessment of what their influence was.
Second, there had never been a comprehensive critique of these individuals and their philosophies. There were critiques of progressive education. But there was nothing comprehensive. There was nothing that took a fundamental principle of interpretation, namely, the religion of salvation by tax funded education, and then demonstrated, citation by citation, from the original sources, that the founders of American tax funded education really did believe in this religion.
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